Mountain Justice by B S Dunn
B S Dunn
Dan Pearson kicked out the fire and cursed the cold. A small column of brown smoke flecked with glittering orange sparks floated up into the bitter morning air. He pulled the collar of his slicker higher trying to keep out the biting autumn chill. It was only a matter of time before the first snows would fall in this part of Wyoming and he wanted to be out of the high country before that happened.
Dan wasn’t a big man, he stood a touch over five and a half feet in his socks. His collar length hair was brown and shaggy, most of it hidden away under a black, low-crowned hat. His face was deeply tanned, almost leathery, and made him look somewhat older than his thirty years. It did however, give him a ruggedly handsome appearance which many women found alluring.
Pearson shivered again as the insidious cold crept beneath his slicker and through his woollen shirt. Tall pines and cedar blocked out the morning sun’s warmth and the heavy air caused the wood smoke from his now defunct camp fire to drift like a blanket of fog halfway up the trunks of the tall rough-barked trees.
A creature of habit, Pearson checked the loads in his single-action Colt army model and then the Winchester which was chambered for a .45-.75 cartridge.
Finding everything in order, Pearson mounted his buckskin mare, and with slight knee pressure, the horse moved off in a slow walk, picking its way along the narrow, winding trail towards the town of Woodsville.
It was late morning when the mountain trail opened out into a lush alpine meadow bordered by immense ponderosa pines and giant cedars. West of the town a stand of silver barked aspen sparkled, leaves of gold and orange standing out against a back drop of green.
In the midst of it all, situated on the banks of a fast-flowing mountain stream, was the town of Woodsville.
Woodsville had humble beginnings as a lumber camp. Trees were felled in the mountains and the stripped logs freighted down from the camp to the timber mills at the foot of the range.
The discovery of gold some twelve months later saw the camp boom with an influx of miners, keen to make their fortune. The rush lasted three years before the last of the placer mines played out and the miners left. In their wake was left a town that struggled to survive.
An English timber man, Edward Fox, had made his fortune selling milled lumber to the miners. Though little was known about him, rumour had it that many years before he’d gone into exile from his native homeland after the suspicious murder of his wife and her lover. Though in reality, nobody actually knew.
Fox and his son had arrived with the first miners. He brought machinery and men with him and soon after, had his lumberjacks felling in the best stands. He supplied timber hand over fist to the miners at exorbitant prices.
Other timber companies saw an opportunity for themselves to come in and take a share of the profits but Fox would have none of it. The first time a rival company tried to move machines into the high country, the freighters were ambushed and the equipment destroyed. It was a single ill-fated attempt.
Therein Fox found another way to make money. He offered to buy ready-to-mill logs from his opposition, at a substantially reduced price.
Of course, the deal was refused. Rather than sell to Fox, they chose to keep freighting it down out of the mountains. Once again, it was tried only once. From then on, they were at the mercy of Edward Fox.
After the miners left, Fox’s profits slumped, but the “entrepreneur”, as he referred to himself, was not one to stand idly by and let money escape his grasp. He began to buy the most lucrative businesses in Woodsville and once more was making money.
Pearson reined up on the outskirts of town and reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a nickel-plated star and pinned it to his chest, high and on the left side.
He’d worn it for the past two years in a small town called Tawny Creek. Tired of wandering, he’d looked for an opportunity to settle down, and Tawny Creek had provided that for him.
Pearson leaned forward and rubbed his horse between the ears. “I guess this is it girl. Let’s ride in and get it done.”
Pearson’s first stop was the livery stable. Not much more than a large barn, it had double doors at both ends and a corral out the back. The hostler’s name was Orville. He was a middle-aged man with grey hair and a limp courtesy of a Reb minie ball.
“What can I do for you stranger?” Orville asked warmly while Pearson was tethering the buckskin to a wobbly hitch-rail.
Pearson turned around and the hostler noticed the badge.
He swallowed hard and his warm demeanour shifted to one of nervousness. “What can I do for you sheriff?”
“A stall for the night if you’ve got one?”
“Sure, no problem,” Orville answered. “People around here call me Orville. Are you just passin’ through sheriff?”
“The name’s Pearson,” Pearson told him. “And no I’m not passin’ through.”
The hostler’s face fell. “No, I didn’t think you were. The stall will be four bits for the night.”
“With feed and rub down?”
“Feed is included, but it’ll cost you an extra two bits for the rub down.”
Pearson nodded. “Fine.”
After the horse was stabled Pearson said, “I’m lookin’ for two men. One rides a paint and the other rides a chestnut. Do you know of anyone around here who forks broncs like that?”
Orville shook his head but his eyes gave him away. “Nope, I don’t know anyone around here who rides them kinda horses. Come to think of it I don’t think I’ve ever seen any such horses like that in town, ever.”
“That’s funny,” Pearson said, “because I was told I could find ’em here in Woodsville.”
The hostler shook his head vigorously. “Nope. Whomever told you that must’ve been drunk when they told you that. Yes sir, blamed drunk.”
The next time Pearson spoke, his voice possessed an edge. “Is everybody in town runnin’ scared like you?”
An indignant expression came over the hostler’s face, all but fleeting. He knew what Pearson meant, but denied it anyway.
“What do you mean?” Orville asked, refusing to meet the lawman’s eyes.
“You know what I mean,” Pearson snapped. “You also know who I’m after and that they blamed well live here in town.”
“Sheriff, I know nothin’.”
“You mean you choose to know nothin’,” Pearson scolded him as he would a child. “Where can I find the local law?”
“The jail is about halfway along main street on your left,” Orville informed him. “It won’t do you any good.”
“Why?” Pearson asked harshly.
Orville didn’t answer. He turned and limped away.
Pearson entered the law office and found the sheriff sitting behind a scarred, dark timber desk, drinking a steaming mug of coffee laced with rot gut whiskey.
Pearson stood in front of the desk. “My name’s Pearson. I’m the sheriff of Tawny Creek. It’s a small town south of here. I’m lookin’ for two men who robbed the Tawny Creek stage and killed the driver and messenger. They stole four thousand dollars from the strong box the Concorde was carryin’.”
Pearson could tell from the expression on the lawman’s face that he knew exactly who Pearson meant even without mentioning names.
The sheriff was an overweight man who looked as though he’d not moved from his chair in years. His puffy face had turned a pale sickly colour.
“I’m sheriff James,” he croaked. “If there is any way I can help, just ask.”
Pearson knew that there was no heart in the offer.
“The men I’m after live here,” he said, knowing he didn’t need to add the last bit of information. “One rides a paint and the other a chestnut. Do you know ’em?”
“Nope. Never heard of ’em,” James answered with a shake of his head.
“You too sheriff?”
All he got in return was a puzzled look.
“Hell James, you know who I’m talkin’ about. Let’s see if this jogs your memory. Jonathan Fox and his pard Abilene. They were the two who hit the stage and did the killin’. I’m here to take ’em back for trial, so you can either help me or stay the hell out of my way.”
Pearson paused briefly then continued. “I’ve been here five minutes and it’s not hard to tell that Edward Fox has this town buffaloed. So tell me, where can I find ’em?”
“I … I don’t know where they are,” the fat man stammered.
Pearson’s eyes grew flinty. “So that’s how it’s going to be is it?”
“You could try the saloon across the street,” James said acting as if he was being helpful. “The Cross Cut it’s called. They could be there.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that,” Pearson said icily. “Thanks for all your help.”
With that the Tawny Creek sheriff turned on his heel and stalked out the door.
James waited until he saw Pearson enter the saloon before he rushed from his office and lumbered along the street to the office of Fox and Son.
Edward Fox sat at a large, finely hand-tooled cedar desk, in a leather upholstered chair. His son, Jonathan sat on a lounge along a side wall, with his cohort Abilene. A pot-bellied stove in the far corner emitted sufficient heat to warm the room.
Fox senior was a thin man with fine, grey hair which was immaculately groomed. He was a man who exuded an aura of great confidence.
Junior was a younger version of the same while Abilene was an average looking young man with lake blue eyes, blond hair and a right arm that could pull a six-gun in the blink of an eye.
“What can we do for our esteemed peace officer today?” the elder Fox asked in a voice that dripped sarcasm.
“You got a problem that just rode into town,” the big man gasped out and pointed at the young men on the lounge. “Actually, it’s you two who have the problem.”
Jonathan and Abilene gave him a questioning look.
“What the hell do you mean?” Jonathan snapped.
“Well, just lately I had noticed you two have been flashin’ money around town. More than usual and today a lawman from down Tawny Creek shows up with a story about a stage heist and lookin’ for you two.”
The two young men remained silent.
Edward Fox looked over at them, his eyes narrowed with his rage.
“What have you two gone and done now?” he hissed.
His son shrugged nonchalantly. “When we went and took care of that business for you, we picked up a little spendin’ money along the way. Nothin’ much.”
Fox’s face turned crimson. “Of all the stupid, idiotic things to do. What the hell were you two idiots thinking?”
“They killed the driver and the shotgun messenger too,” James put in.
“Watch your mouth fat man,” Abilene warned.
“Shut up!” Fox exploded. “I can’t believe that the pair of you thought that I wouldn’t find out. And now your stupidity has brought outside law here.”
Abilene leapt to his feet, drew his Colt .45 and checked its loads.
“Where is he?” he asked staring hard at James. “I’ll fix the problem right now.”
“He went over to the Cross Cut,” the sheriff answered.
Fox held up a gnarled hand. “Just hold up. You two have caused enough trouble. I’ll sort this out. Meanwhile, you two go up to the cabin at Deep Creek and lay low. Don’t come back to town until I send for you.”
The two young men left and Fox turned his steely gaze on the sheriff. “Go and find Wells for me. Tell him I have a job for him and have him meet me at my house.”
When Pearson entered the saloon, most patrons turned to stare at the stranger with the badge pinned to his chest. The room went silent for a time before the noise levels returned to normal once again.
Pearson looked about from his position just inside the bat-wing doors. A sawdust covered plank floor held round tables with scarred tops which were scattered throughout the room. The bar was constructed of hardwood and stretched across most of the width of the room while a long rectangle mirror on the rear wall sat above shelves of bottles.
Percentage girls were ensconced on the knees of customers, encouraging them to part with more money, while the faro table appeared busy.
Pearson weaved his way through the crowd as he crossed the smoke-filled room and bellied up to the bar.
“What’ll it be sheriff?” the short barkeep asked. “Beer or whiskey?”
Pearson shook his head, “Neither. I’m lookin’ for Jonathan Fox; know where I can find him?”
The barkeep stared blankly at the Tawny Creek sheriff. Without a word he turned and walked away to a spot further down the bar where he started to clean glasses with a stained rag.
Finally, Pearson’s frustration boiled over. He turned to face the bar-room.
“I’m lookin’ for Jonathan Fox and his pard Abilene,” he shouted. “They robbed a stage and killed two men. Do any of you know where I can find them?”
Every person in the room ignored him. It was as if Pearson wasn’t there.
“Hell!” he cursed and stormed out.
The next place of call was the Fox and Son office but it was locked up and the blinds pulled. More frustration.
For the rest of the day Pearson tried various other establishments, under the watchful eye of townsfolk too afraid to talk, for the same result. Finally he gave up in disgust after his belly told him it was time to eat. He would go to Fox’s office the following morning and see what he had to say.
It was just on dark when Pearson found himself a small eatery on a side street that was run by a widow woman and her daughter.
Inside there was enough room for ten tables, no more. Each table was covered with a white table cloth and had two chairs. Clean cutlery sat on the table tops, along with starched napkins.
Although the place was small, Pearson thought that somebody took great pains to look after their patrons.
The room was filled with mouth-watering aromas and by the time Pearson sat down at the only available table, his stomach was kicking up a storm.
He ordered a plate of stew and potatoes, followed by homemade dumplings. Without a doubt, it was certainly the best home cooked meal he’d had in a long while.
Pearson was halfway through his second cup of coffee when the widow woman’s daughter sat in the chair opposite him.
She was thin, plain looking but not unattractive, her long brown hair tied back in a ponytail. It quickly struck him that she was not the young girl he’d thought she was. She was in every way a young woman.
Pearson’s mug stopped halfway to his lips as he waited on an explanation for the intrusion. The young lady had a look of uncertainty on her face and the Tawny Creek sheriff thought that she might have changed her mind and stand up before she spoke a word.
In a soft voice she asked, “Are you planning on taking Jon and Abilene back with you mister?”
“That’s the idea,” he replied.
“Are you going to take them back alive or are you going to shoot them?”
Pearson was puzzled. “Why is it you want to know ma’am?”
“My name is Peggy,” she informed him. “But if you’re planning on taking them back alive that means old man Fox will try to stop you. And you might have to kill him. That would please me no end.”
Pearson’s face, although taken aback at the harshness that Peggy’s voice held, remained passive.
“I’m sorry,” she hurriedly apologised. “But you can’t blame me for hoping. After all, that man is responsible for the death of my father, and now you show up. A real man who might be the only hope of breaking the choke hold that man has on this town.”
“I’m sorry about your Pa,” Pearson said quietly. “But my job here is to bring in the ones responsible for the stage robbery and deaths of two men. If Fox comes between me and my duty then I’ll deal with him. But if he leaves me be, then that’s all I’ll do. I’m not somebody’s avenging angel. Besides, hate is a heavy burden to be carryin’ around.”
Peggy remained silent for a while then she stood up, the chair scraped on the floorboards as it moved back. She brushed at the front of her floral apron and moved around the table to where she could reach the empty bowl the dumplings had been in.
“You might try the company cabin up on Deep Creek,” she whispered. “It’s four miles north of here.”
When she turned and walked back to the kitchen, Peggy could feel his eyes on her, and that made her smile.
Pearson remembered seeing a hotel on his way around town and walked toward it along the dusty boardwalk, dim lantern light cast a dull orange glow across his path.
He pulled the collar on his jacket higher as the chilled night air bit sharply into his exposed skin. As his boots clunked along on the boards, Peggy’s words played over and over in his head. He would take a look at the cabin in the morning. If the pair were there, they wouldn’t be going anywhere in a hurry.
Pearson stepped down into the street to cross it when thunder filled the night air and the muzzle flash from a rifle lit an alley across the way.
A burning pain lanced across his left side as a bullet scored a deep furrow over his ribs. The force of it spun him around and Pearson collapsed to his knees.
Instinct took over and he drew his Colt, turned stiffly, raised his gun and fired at the darkened alley.
The bushwhacker fired again and dirt kicked up to Pearson’s left. Pearson fired at the muzzle flash, two shots and was rewarded with a cry of alarm.
Ignoring the pain in his side Pearson leapt to his feet and ran across the street. He took cover up against the front wall of the mercantile and then edged his way along to the mouth of the alley.
No more gunfire sounded so Pearson cautiously entered the dark alley and found the bushwhacker laying in the shadows. Pearson knelt down beside the body and felt for a pulse. There was none. Whoever this man was, he was dead.
People started to gather around the mouth of the alley and it wasn’t long before the sheriff arrived on the scene blowing hard from his exertions.
“What the blazes is goin’ on?” he gasped out. “Well Pearson?”
Pearson pointed at the dark shadow of the dead man on the ground. “It would seem that this here feller wanted to blow a few holes in me.”
“Has somebody got a light?” Sheriff James asked.
A tall, slim man stepped out of the crowd holding a lantern at shoulder height. He held it above the dead bushwhacker so his face was visible.
“It’s Shorty Wells,” murmured a man in the crowd.
The lucky shot from Pearson’s Colt had hit the man high in the chest, killing him.
“Who’s Shorty Wells?” Pearson asked James.
“He’s um … he’s nobody,” James said hesitantly. “He’s just a bum.”
Pearson had been lied to all day and now he’d been ambushed. He’d had enough. With a fluid motion his Colt appeared in his hand. He raised it so the barrel poked up under the lawman’s double chin.
“Who’s Shorty Wells?”
There was a murmur from the crowd.
“He’s … he’s a man who works for Mr Fox,” stammered James.
Pearson holstered his six-gun. “See, now wasn’t that easy?”
The Tawny Creek sheriff shouldered his way through the crowd and once he was clear, stopped to examine his bloody side. When he looked up Peggy stood before him. She took him by the arm. “Come with me and I’ll fix that for you.”
“What are you doin’ here?”
“I heard the shooting,” she explained. “I knew it was you.”
“Yeah well, you shouldn’t have come.”
“Whatever,” she shrugged. “Come with me.”
Pearson allowed himself to be led away by Peggy. She was beginning to interest him very much.
“There you go, all done.”
Peggy stood back and admired her work.
Pearson sat on a kitchen chair in the home of his nurse. With no shirt on, even with the small wood stove burning, he was beginning to feel the cold.
It was a small room, but in all it looked functional.
“You can stop staring at me now, I’m finished. Put your shirt back on.”
Pearson turned red with embarrassment as he realised he had indeed been staring at Peggy.
“I’m sorry,” he apologised. “I didn’t know I was doin’ it.”
Peggy smiled warmly. “I don’t mind. It’s not often that a man like you happens by and looks at me like you have been. It’s quite flattering.”
Pearson turned even redder but said nothing while he put his bloody shirt back on.
“I wish you’d let me clean your shirt for you,” Peggy said dismayed at the sight of it.
“It’s fine, really. I’ve another in my saddlebags,” he reassured her.
Peggy had cleaned his wound, put some salve on it and then bandaged it tight to help stop the bleeding.
“Well, I guess I’ll be goin’. Thanks for the doctorin’.”
Peggy put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Wait here a minute.” And then she disappeared.
A few minutes later she returned with blankets and a pillow.
“What’s all this?” Pearson asked hesitantly.
She dumped it all in Pearson’s arms and said, “We have a spare room out the back. You’ll be sleeping there.”
Pearson opened his mouth to protest but Peggy cut him off.
“It’s fine. It was ma’s idea. She couldn’t see a problem with it, you being a sheriff and all. So breakfast is at seven. Don’t be late.”
Peggy turned and left the room, leaving Pearson sitting there stunned.
The following morning sheriff James was in the office of Edward Fox, and the latter was not happy.
“That bastard was lucky last night,” Fox fumed. “I’ve never known Shorty to miss.”
“That’s just it,” said James, “he did and now he’s dead because of it.”
Fox sat in his big leather chair and remained silent, deep in thought. He looked up at James.
“Sheriff, you’re looking a little pale,” he observed. “I suggest a short trip out of town is in order. Before the first snow sets in.”
James was slow to realise that what he was being told was not an option.
“I feel fine Mr Fox. Never felt better.”
Fox sighed heavily at the lawman’s inability to comprehend what he was hearing. “Do I have to spell it out for you? Pearson is fast becoming a problem and I can only see one way of getting rid of him. And that is by going at him hard. I don’t think you want to be around for that.”
It finally dawned on James what Fox was alluding to. “Oh.”
“So, have you seen him this morning or not?” Fox asked the sheriff.
James shook his head, “Nope. I ain’t seen hide nor hair of him since last night.”
Fox frowned. “I wonder where he is.”
Pearson had risen before dawn that chilled morning and foregone breakfast to get an early start up to Deep Creek. His side was stiff and a little sore but he knew that would be fine.
Orville was up and about, curious as to what Pearson was doing about so early.
“You’re up early this mornin’,” he observed.
“How’s the wound?”
Pearson turned away from tightening the cinch on his saddle and stared hard at the hostler, “If I told you where I was goin’ would you run down and tell Fox?”
“Hell no,” Orville said indignantly.
“Well then, I’m goin’ out to …”
The hostler held up a gnarled hand. “Hold it there. I ain’t so sure I want to know.”
“Orville, what happened to your leg?” Pearson asked.
The hostler was taken aback at the question but after a brief silence he answered the question.
“Took a Reb minie ball at Gettysburg,” he explained. “It smashed my leg. Field surgeon wanted to take it off but a friend of mine wouldn’t let him.”
Pearson digested the information then asked, “How come a feller like you puts up with Fox? Surely, you’re not scared of him? Not after goin’ through what you have.”
Orville opened his mouth to vent a stern rebuke but no words spilled out. Instead his mouth snapped shut like a steel trap.
Pearson mounted his horse and rode off into the cold, mist-filled morning, leaving the hostler contemplating what he’d said.
The cabin stood deep in the trees on a patch of dirt just big enough for the log constructed building. From its stone chimney drifted a thin column of white smoke. Out back was a small, rough-built corral with two horses standing hip-shot at the rail. Growing from its centre was a large pine.
As Pearson sat watching the cabin, the light mist which hung between the trees started to lift. His horse was tied to a low branch further back along the trail and he’d approached the cabin through the dense timber.
The Tawny Creek sheriff drew his Colt and bent low. He crept forward, stopping frequently to listen intently.
It wasn’t until he reached the cabin and positioned himself under a window that he heard the voices inside.
“Man, I hate sittin’ around here doin’ nothin’. Why doesn’t your old man let me at that son of a bitch and have done with it.”
“Just be patient Abilene. He knows what he’s doin’. Maybe another day at most and he’ll be dead and we can head on back to town.”
Abilene mumbled something incoherent which Pearson couldn’t make out. Well at least they were there. Now he had to get them out.
He thought of the corral, and an idea dawned on him.
“God damn it. The horses are loose,” Abilene’s voice cursed loudly.
The cabin door flew open and out tumbled the two wanted young men.
“Hold it right there,” Pearson snapped as he eared back the hammer on his Colt. “You two are under arrest.”
Abilene swore and went for his gun. A foolish move for his pistol never even cleared leather before the hammer on Pearson’s six-gun fell.
The Colt roared loudly in the still morning air and the slug took Abilene high in the left of his chest. He cried out as he reeled back and crashed to the damp earth. His gun still in its holster unfired, and a growing patch of red on his coat.
Pearson shifted his aim to cover Jonathan Fox who stood transfixed in shock, looking down at the lifeless body of his friend.
He looked up at the Tawny Creek sheriff, his face a mask of rage. “You low down bastard.”
Pearson’s .45 held rock steady in his fist. “Maybe, but if you don’t want to end up like your friend there, unbuckle your gun-belt with your left hand and let it drop.”
Pearson watched as Fox did as he was ordered and there was a dull thud when the gun-belt hit the earth.
“Right,” he said, “it’s time to catch them horses. Now move.”
“My Pa will kill you for this,” Jonathan Fox snarled.
“Just shut up and move,” Pearson snapped. “You’re goin’ to hang for what you and Abilene did, and I for one won’t be sheddin’ any tears.”
When Pearson rode into town leading the two horses with the younger Fox and the stiffening Abilene on them, people stopped to stare in disbelief. To them, all the sheriff of Tawny Creek had succeeded in doing was to sign his own death warrant.
Word spread like wildfire through the town and as the horses were being tied at the hitch rail outside the jail, the news reached Edward Fox.
Shortly after that, Fox sent word for all the hardcases in his employ to assemble across the street in the Cross Cut saloon.
Inside the jail, Pearson locked Jonathan Fox in an empty cell in the back room and returned to the front office where he found Orville waiting for him.
To his surprise, he was cradling a cut-off twelve-gauge shotgun.
“What are you doin’ here?” he asked the hostler.
“I come to help.”
“Where’s the sheriff?”
“He rode out this mornin’,” Orville told him. “Didn’t say where he was goin’, just that he had somethin’ to do.”
Pearson nodded. “Convenient.”
There was a moment of silence before the hostler spoke again. “Heard you brought in young Jon. Figured you might need some help.”
“You do realise there is a good chance you’ll get yourself killed, don’t you?” Pearson pointed out.
The hostler reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a battered old campaign hat and put it on.
“Why in hell did you bring him back here anyways?” Orville asked. “Why not just keep ridin’ down out of the mountains?”
“You know Fox. How far do you think I’d get down the mountain before him and his henchmen caught up?”
“Yeah, I see your point.”
Pearson walked over to the gun rack and broke the chain that looped through the trigger guards of the weapons. He took down a couple of Winchesters, a sawed-off shotgun and a Henry rifle. He left an older army model Spencer and a ’74 Sharps in the rack.
He placed the guns on the sheriff’s desk, found some ammunition and loaded them.
Pearson picked up one of the Winchesters and a spare box of cartridges. He gave them to Orville and said, “You’ll be needin’ them.”
“Pearson!” The voice called from out on the street.
“Looks like it’s about to start,” observed Orville.
“Yeah, find yourself some cover beside the window on the left.”
“It’s Fox,” said Orville when he looked out.
Pearson scooped up his own rifle and hurried across to the window on the right. He opened it and called back, “What do you want Fox?”
Edward Fox stood in the middle of the main street holding a rifle and flanked by two gunmen.
“You know what I want Pearson,” he bellowed. “Let my boy go.”
“Can’t do that.”
“The way I see it Pearson you have two choices. Let my boy go or we’ll kill you and that crippled old buzzard in there with you. I have another ten men in the saloon just waiting to shoot you dead. The choice is yours. I don’t care either way. I’ll give you five minutes to decide.”
“You know he’s goin’ to kill us whether we let his son go or not?” said Orville.
Pearson turned to the hostler and nodded. “We need to get that desk on its side and put both it and the cabinet under the windows for some protection. These walls are paper thin and won’t stop much.”
They’d just finished the task when, “Pearson!”
The Tawny Creek sheriff looked out into the street but it was empty.
“Can you hear me Pearson?” The voice it seemed, was coming from inside the saloon.
“I hear you.”
“Are you comin’ out with my boy or do we start shootin’?”
“I think you know the answer to that,” Pearson called out. “Just remember we have your son in here. I’d hate for him to get shot by a stray slug.”
“Well, maybe you can be persuaded by some other means.”
A brief commotion across the street followed as Peggy was shoved roughly through the bat-wings in front of a gunman.
“What do you say now? Send Jon out or my man shoots the girl.” Fox shouted.
Pearson gave Orville a look of helplessness. “Will he do it?”
The hostler nodded. “I do believe he would.”
Pearson shook his head. “I’m sorry Orville.”
“I understand,” he said trying to ease Pearson’s guilt. “Maybe we can take a few with us.”
“Come on Pearson, I’m tired of waiting.”
“Get him out Orville.”
When the young man came out of the back room, he had a smug look on his face. “I told you what would happen. Now once I’m free my old man will kill the pair of you and I’ll be …”
Pearson stepped forward and drove his rifle butt brutally into Jonathan Fox’s middle, driving the air from him.
“You’ll be hidin’ behind your father like the yeller dog you are,” Pearson grated through clenched teeth. “Now get your worthless carcass outside before I shoot you where you stand.”
Pearson and Orville went across to the windows as Jonathan Fox walked outside. The street was empty in both directions but there were men with rifles on the roof tops.
“Hold it right there kid,” Pearson said in a menacing voice. “Hey Fox, here’s your rotten offspring. You start the girl and we’ll start your son.”
There came the murmur of voices from the other side of the street and Peggy slowly began the walk toward the jail.
“Okay Fox,” Pearson warned. “Move off real slow. Any wrong move and I’ll shoot you. Pure and simple.”
Both moved slowly across the street which to the Tawny Creek sheriff seemed to have widened dramatically. As Jonathan Fox walked past Peggy he hissed in a harsh tone, “You’re dead.”
She gave no indication that she’d heard and chose to keep her gaze straight ahead and her pace steady. Once she was at the open door, Peggy dived through and Pearson slammed it shut behind her.
Instantly the shooting began. Bullets punched holes through the thin walls and embedded themselves into the opposite ones. The glass windows shattered and razor-sharp shards scythed across the room.
“Stay down!” Pearson yelled at Peggy. “Crawl into the back room where the cells are and stay there.”
She did as she was told and Pearson commenced firing on the saloon. His first target was an upstairs window. He fired three fast shots and saw his target disappear. Dead or wounded he wasn’t sure.
Orville had already emptied one rifle and was now letting loose with the Henry.
“Don’t waste too much ammunition Orville!” The Tawny Creek sheriff yelled his warning. “It ain’t like we got a whole lot.”
“Who said I was wastin’ it. I already got me two fellers who won’t be seein’ another day.”
Pearson fired at a rifle barrel that protruded from a shattered saloon window. His bullet gouged splinters from the window’s timber frame and sprayed the rifle owners face with the slivers. His target reeled back, clawing at his face and exposed himself. Pearson’s rifle bucked against his shoulder again and this time the slug took the man in the chest, and knocked him back out of sight.
After another flurry of shots, the rifle fire ebbed and then stopped.
“What do you figure they’re up to?” A puzzled Orville asked.
“Who knows. How many do you figure we’ve hit?”
“I’ve done for two,” Orville assured him. “I’d put down a third as possible.”
“I think I’ve taken care of two,” Pearson said.
“How many you figure he’s got over there?”
“I don’t know,” Pearson shrugged. Then he called out to Peggy. “Peggy are you okay?”
“Do you know how many guns Fox has over there?”
“About a dozen I think,” came the distant reply.
“Is that with the guns he has on the roof tops, Peggy?”
“I don’t know about them.”
“Did you see ’em Orville?” Pearson asked the hostler.
“Only the tops of their heads,” he explained. “But I figure there could be another eight or nine guns up there.”
“Way too many for us to handle,” the Tawny Creek sheriff allowed.
A new volley of gun fire erupted from the saloon and eight men led by Jonathan Fox exploded through the bat-wings. They fired rifles and six-guns as they started to cross the street to lay down a deadly fusillade of fire.
When the attackers reached the centre of the main street more gunfire erupted from the roof tops. The volume of fire coming into the jail didn’t increase. If anything, it dwindled.
Pearson poked his head up to take a quick look. Outside, the attackers were in disarray. Six of the eight were down; the other two were firing at the roof tops. Jonathan Fox lay motionless in the street, most likely killed in the first volley.
It wasn’t long before the remaining gunmen joined the others.
An eerie silence fell across the town. Pearson and Orville looked up at the rooftops and saw to their surprise that the gunmen were townsfolk of Woodsville.
“It looks as though the good citizens have taken their town back,” smiled Pearson.
“It sure do,” agreed the smiling hostler.
Peggy joined them and they walked outside and stood on the boardwalk surveying the bloody scene before them.
“That would’ve been us if they hadn’t bought in to the fight,” Pearson allowed.
“Look out!” Peggy’s cry of alarm drew their attention to Edward Fox who’d stormed out of the Cross Cut saloon, six-gun in hand. He started firing erratically.
“I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch!”
A bullet smacked into the wall behind Pearson while another fanned his cheek. He didn’t move. He didn’t have to as Orville swung up the Henry rifle and fired, levered and fired again.
The two slugs ripped into Fox who stopped in his tracks, mouth agape. He staggered another step and tried to bring his gun into line with the hostler. The weight of it in the hand of the dying man was too much.
He took one more step and fell forward, dead. The town of Woodsville truly was free.
Pearson stood beside his horse ready to leave.
“Thanks for your help Orville,” he said and he thrust out his hand.
The hostler took it in a firm grip. A confident grip. “No. Thank you. If it weren’t for you, I’d still be showin’ yeller. You take care of yourself.”
Orville walked off and only Peggy stood before him.
“Well I’d best be off.”
“I suppose so,” Peggy said quietly.
There was a brief silence and Pearson said, “If I was to come back up here after the snow thaws do you think your Ma would cook me one of her meals?”
Peggy smiled warmly. “I’m sure she would.”
She leant forward and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
“Goodbye,” she whispered in his ear.
When she drew back their eyes held for a short time which Pearson broke as he turned and climbed into the saddle.
He looked down at her and touched the brim of his hat.
“Ma’am,” he said with a smile. Then he turned his horse and rode out of town.